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Saturday, April 10, 2010
Star Books Review

A stranger in native land

Jessica Mudditt explores the pains of one who returns

Seasonal Adjustments
Adib Khan
Allen and Unwin

Seasonal Adjustments traces a man's return to his village in Bangladesh after an 18-year absence. Adib Khan's novel, however, is not in the tradition of expats who return with a willingness to embrace their native land after years of romanticising it. The central character, 43-year-old Iqbal Ahmed Chaudhary from Shopnoganj, simply isn't in the mood. He has recently endured the pain of matrimonial breakdown, so he arrives in Bangladesh with his young daughter and a shattered ego. However, Iqbal is not too preoccupied to discover that spending nearly two decades in Australia has profoundly altered him, and he is shocked to realise that fitting in might not work out. Seasonal Adjustments is a poignant, sometimes painful account of a middle-aged man coping with loss and struggling to identify with a nation, culture and family he is no longer familiar with.

It's also a very funny and humane book. Iqbal's caustic wit is brilliantly executed, whether it be directed towards his mother, his hypocritical brother or strangers on the street. One of the most amusing scenes takes place in the post office, when Iqbal almost throws a tantrum over tampered mail. "I wasn't cerebrally retarded," Iqbal tells a fellow customer when his annoyance falls on deaf ears. The novel's charm lies in its simplicity -- it is not packed with dramatic events, but rather a slow and steady stream of everyday experiences and frustrations, mixed with memories spanning four decades and two nations. Iqbal is interesting enough in himself for this to work.

Iqbal's fraught relationship with Islam comes under the spotlight on many occasions during his visit. His lack of enthusiasm is distressing to his parents, who are strongly devout. His mother is aghast when Iqbal confesses that he has forgotten how to pray. Iqbal's ambivalence stems from his childhood, as Khan writes, "Each day, after returning from school, we found a dreaded, malodorous mullah awaiting us with the Koran and a waxed cane." When Iqbal performed badly on his school exams, his mother dragged him off to visit the terrifying Maulana Azad, who instructed Iqbal to wear a tabeez. He recalls, "The string held the terror of a noose as it was slipped over my head. It became a penitential millstone for several years and a constant reminder that failure of any kind was not permissible in our family."

Another formative religious experience involved taking the advice of a fanatical Muslim a little too far. Khan writes, "Spurred on by Khuda Buksh's religious zeal and keen to do our bit in the holy struggle, one afternoon Hashim and I dressed ourselves as cowboys and went out on a jihad to tilt the balance in favour of Islam. It did not strike us at the time that cowboys belonged to another religion…" In blind innocence the brothers poured kerosene over an anthill and watched triumphantly as the ants died in the flames. Afterwards the boys were so consumed with guilt that they couldn't look at one another for days. And so Iqbal adopts pacifism, and possibly cynicism, from an early age, "Never again did the prospect of a holy war enthuse me into any form of violent action."

Iqbal isn't the type to mould his behaviour according to the sensibilities of his company. Integrity is perhaps his greatest strength; tact is his weakness. During Eid he steadfastly refuses to let his daughter Nadine witness the slaughter of cows, as he remembers the trauma it caused him as a boy. During the feast he is sullen and barely conceals his antipathy for a tradition he describes as an "unpardonable exhibition of selfish greed." He leaves the celebrations abruptly. Yet Iqbal's inability to accept some of the most basic aspects of life in Bangladesh, poverty being one, causes him a great deal of distress. "What upsets me most," he concedes, "is my inability to slip back into a tradition I assumed was an integral part of me."

Like the author himself, Iqbal went to Australia in 1973 as a "confused young man." Iqbal doesn't spell out precisely why he left newly independent Bangladesh, but he is unequivocal about why he adopted Australia as his new home. It was, he writes, "an opportunity to be different", because no Chaudary before him had been to the continent. It was also a rejection of Britain, which was "an obsessive ideal with the older Chaudaries." On the contrary, at the time Iqbal felt wholly negative towards the coloniser, as he explains, "I despised the British for humbling us, using us and creating the political mess before they left." However, Iqbal did not find paradise in Australia -- it too has its own shortcomings, albeit of a different variety. His identity as a person of Indian descent, a former Pakistani and a present day Bangladeshi, is beyond the grasp of most he meets at backyard barbeques. The happy-go-lucky but narrow-minded mentality and the racism that has barely improved over the years have worn him thin. He frequently locks horns with his Catholic wife's friends and her father in particular. Yet Iqbal doesn't regret his decision to live there, nor does he contemplate leaving for good. Towards the end of the novel, one gets the feeling that Iqbal is developing a newfound tolerance, whilst at the same time becoming more confident in his beliefs. It's a good result; but more importantly, a good read.

Jessica Mudditt is an Australian journalist .

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